The news that President Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize seems like a prize bit of satire, like Chicago getting the Olympics. “Are you laughing or crying,” wrote a reader to me. “Neither. I’m thinking about what this tells us about the world today,” I responded.
Then I checked over and over and over again on the Internet and called up several people just to make sure that this wasn’t a satire, that some new type of computer virus hadn’t infiltrated my software that would make fools of anyone credulous enough to believe this hoax.
And then I realized that it makes perfect sense.
It was considered a big joke when people quoted Woody Allen, the American comedian and film director, as saying, that showing up is eighty percent of success. (Allen says he doesn’t remember ever having said that.) With Obama the percentage is considerably higher.
But after all the mocking or cheering, what this shows is that we live in the world now not of realism but of imagination and wishful thinking. The Nobel Committee even said that it gave the prize not because Obama has done anything but that they support him. They want him to do something.
In the past, the ancestors of Westerners had to work hard, most lived in grinding poverty, faced wars and famines. Remember the proletariat? Remember the slums?
But now they—or at least not only the elites who govern but also the masses of the upper middle class that make and shape the news—are living off the fat of the land. In America, even slum-dwellers usually have hi-tech music devices, expensive sports’ shoes among the young, and other consumer goods far beyond Third World living standards.
Is it an accident that according to the UN Human Development Index, Norway, once the home of starving farmers and fishermen, is number one in the whole world in terms of living standards. While the Norwegians did some of it themselves, a lot comes from the exploitation of oilfields off their coasts, unearned wealth.
And the left, no longer is champion of the actual poor and downtrodden, they just talk about it a lot, then party with the dictators who keep their people in those conditions. In good Marxian fashion they pursue their own interests: bigger government and grant programs to give them high-paying jobs and to provide for their needs; the feeling of being a good and moral person even when those they are supporting are terrorists.
To a large extent, too, those who govern—as in the times of aristocratic rule—don’t actually produce anything, or at least not anything but words, concepts, proposals, programs, and statements. The old American slang for this is that they’ve never met a payroll. Some of them have, but the money came from either government or foundations. They know about selling an idea but not manufacturing or selling three-dimensional objects.
Meanwhile, the resource base is narrowing, at least in Europe, and societies are living beyond their means. Crime is rising; terrorism and mass violence is peeking out. Proportionately large sections of proportionately large immigrant populations may not want to integrate. But to adjust to these facts makes the voters unhappy and so everyone pretends otherwise. Don’t worry, be happy is a theme which wins a lot of backing.
In all of this context, feeling good is more important than doing good. Doing good may involve doing gritty things, like building factories to employ people at higher wages (uh, oh, environment, man-made global warming, nasty developers demonized in films) or to work real hard in school or start a small business and slave away at it (what are you, Asian?) or to fight in wars against totalitarian foes (and what if you hit a civilian by mistake when your enemies are shooting them on purpose or hiding behind them?)
Films, music, and other forms of entertainment—the main shapers of popular ideas—portray constantly young people who have lots of money but have never worked for it. Instant success, instant fame, instant wealth. The hero is not the courageous soldier but the actor who plays a courageous soldier on the screen.
And so what better symbol for this is Barack Obama, the man who has never achieved anything except being elected president. (His earlier posts were mainly the gifts of the most corrupt political machine in America.)
He talks; everyone cheers and goes home.
Listen to the words of the Nobel Committee statement: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future."
Really? But I would say all American presidents capture the world’s attention. As for giving people hope for a better future, which people? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Hugo Chavez?
Are peasants in their fields in China and India saying to their children: “Look little [insert appropriate name] Barack Obama will save us!”
It is one thing to believe in a messianic figure but doesn’t he have to do something first?
This is more like electing someone the world’s most popular parent because he let the kids stay up all night, not do their homework, throw parties, and consume large amounts of alcohol and drugs.
And then the committee said: "His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."
The most obvious point is that whether he shares the values and attitudes of Americans, the country he leads, is of minor importance. But exactly what are these values and attitudes? Oh, I have it, that the United States has long been the world’s greatest villain.
And best of all, the head of the Nobel Committee stated that the prize was given, “because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve"
It’s sort of like giving the Nobel Prize for chemistry to a scientist who hasn’t discovered anything but seems like a nice person and is, after all, trying to cure cancer. So we support what he is “trying to achieve.”
But what if he is trying to achieve it badly, What if he is trying to achieve it in a way such that he is destined to fail and make things worse? By this standard British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain deserved the Nobel Peace Prize of 1938 for his efforts to achieve peace. That’s why Nobel Prizes—and sometimes presidencies—are given to people who have already done something. They have proven an ability to do so.
President Theodore Roosevelt, a man who, in comparison, makes Obama look like a microbe, received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace in the Russo-Japanese war. In comparison, Obama has helped set back the Israel-Palestinian conflict 20 years (to be fair, 18, that is before the Oslo agreement).
But yes that’s the measure of the world today: If you envision something then that makes it true. If you tell a smug elite what it wants to hear, not only do they applaud but they report in all their media that everyone else applauded also.
The biggest problem with all this is the following: The fate of the world may depend on whether Barack Obama is capable of learning. Yet if Obama keeps getting rewarded for doing nothing or doing the wrong thing he won’t learn. And things will get worse.
Recently, my son's soccer team lost a game 10-0. At the end of the game, rather than tell them the truth--they were doing terribly and they needed to improve their strategy and skills--their coach told them they were playing great. That team is like the Obama Administration; the media, and now the Nobel Committee, are just like that coach.
Doesn't look like it's going to be a good season.
Yes, we live in the real world ultimately, not the world of public relations and wishful thinking. There are prices to be paid. Impractical idealists can get people killed and make big messes as much as cynics. Let me amend that: far more than cynics.
Even Obama seems to sense a bit--and his critics are highlighting this point--that this is too much, too absurd, an embarrassing contrast between minimal achievement, maximum perception of success, and on top of that near-deification.
What sums up this situation best is a line from Tom Lehrer, the math professor who once wrote successful liberal satirical songs but then stopped and never did again. Asked why, he responded: When Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize it killed satire.
Poor satire is really in trouble now.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books